Tag Archives: cargo biking

We tried it: Burley Travoy

travoy

Our Burley Travoy, ready for the market

This may well be the most-delayed review I’ve ever written. We got a Burley Travoy for Christmas in 2011, and have used it regularly for 3.5 years. It is sort of a stealth accessory, because it’s not exclusively used on our bikes. It is a multipurpose urban hauler.

The Travoy made a bit of splash when it first came out several years ago, because it was the first trailer with an advertising campaign that suggested that people wearing suits might use it while biking to the office. Ride a bike to work in a suit? What kind of craziness is that? Although to be honest, even though I totally ride to work in dress clothes, the commute to work is one of the few things for which we’ve never used the Travoy. Anyway, since then it seems to have faded somewhat from the cargo hauling consciousness. There are reasons for that, but I think the Travoy is somewhat underappreciated, just like my favorite bicycle accessory of all time, the bungee net. Granted, it is many times more expensive than a bungee net, but in its defense, it can do a lot more. Six word review?

Burley Travoy: goes anywhere, hauls anything*

*except a box spring, the bête noire of all family bikers

What I like about the Travoy

  • It hauls anything. I mean, not ANYTHING, not a house or a car, because physics, but pretty much anything you might actually need to haul. Groceries and work supplies like laptops, duh, but
    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    that is just the beginning. There are photos all over the internet of people hauling bikes on Travoys, full-size bikes, not just Bromptons (which fit nicely). Boxes bigger than actual human beings are no problem, there are straps for that. I have been obsessing somewhat over disaster preparation ever since I took the SF Fire Department’s NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) training, and a Travoy would be worth its weight in platinum in any kind of post-disaster scenario. When we went to Camp Mather last summer, which is a car-free and sometimes off-road environment, I used the Travoy every day to ride from our cabin to the lake. It attached to the Brompton and typically carried: two umbrella chairs, a pop-up sun tent, multiple pool toys, books, sunscreen, 4 water/wine bottles, 4 bag lunches, 4 beach towels, 4 changes of clothes, and so forth, plus whatever random rocks and other crap my kids snuck in there when I wasn’t looking. We have a habit of pushing right to the edge of the 50 item checkout limit at the library, and we all have our own library cards. Although I suspect that the resulting loads fall somewhat beyond the Travoy’s official 60 pound (27 kilo) capacity, it has never had issues carrying them. I would probably not attempt larger furniture items, but who knows.

  • When I say it hauls anything: yes, that includes a kid. IMPORTANT: carrying your child on a Travoy will unquestionably void any express or implied manufacturer’s warranty, because Burley specifically tells you not to
    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    do that. But let’s face it, just like every other family biker, I push bicycles and bicycle accessories far, far beyond their suggested use cases. I was once cautious like every other newbie, but life happens, and one day you find yourself in a position where you need to carry a kid in the front basket or on a cargo trailer, and then it happens again, and sooner or later you realize that the universe is full of surprises and you might as well roll with them. So now I test upfront for all the stupid stuff I know I’m eventually going to do with the bike/accessories, rather than facing disappointment later on when I’m desperate. Would this be a good option for a daily commute? Absolutely not. Would I strap an infant car seat on the Travoy? Hell no. Can I imagine doing it when I had an unplanned kid pick up one day? Yes, I can. So anyway yes, this can be done, and yes, it will also almost certainly inspire some drive-by parenting, but then again, what doesn’t?

  • It attaches to nearly any bike. Longtail decks are a maybe (I have been told that it’s doable but would require either extreme handiness or the assistance of a local bike shop) and for obvious reasons it cannot be used in combination with a trailer or trailer-bike. The Travoy ships with a seat-post clip-in attachment; this is what we use on the Brompton. You can also buy a Burley clamp and attach it to a rear rack; this is how we had it set up on the Breezer.
  • The Travoy can be used as a hand cart. It is designed for this, as the bike attachment can be folded down, leaving a nice padded pull bar that is so comfortable to hold
    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    that our kids fight over who gets to pull it when it’s unloaded. Since we moved last year, this has become our primary use for the Travoy, because our new place is one block away from the farmers’ market. We used to ride to the market but given our new location we can walk there in roughly the same time it takes to get the bikes out of the garage. If you are city people, as we are, you have already seen people hauling their shopping around in folding metal hand carts, because in major cities only crazy people shop by car and trying to carry 3-4 bags of groceries in your arms or a backpack is excruciating. Anyway, you can buy cheap hand carts that break after a few months for $20 in Chinatown, or you can spring for $100 versions that will last for years. Or in our case, you can glance at the Travoy sitting next to the bikes and realize you already have a hand cart. Bonus: the big air-filled wheels mean that it can be dragged up staircases fully-loaded, something traditional folding hand carts resist strenuously.

  • There are bags and straps for various stuff-hauling scenarios, and the clip system that attaches them is very clever.
    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    It comes with a bag that can carry the folding Travoy or be attached to the unfolded trailer. Given our regular farmers’ market run, we eventually got the shopping bags; a small bag on top holds fragile items like berries and flowers, and a large bag on the bottom holds heavy stuff. Apparently these bags aren’t big sellers because we got them for like half-off, but they are great. There are travel bags that are somewhat more insulated for laptops or checked luggage, and waterproof roll-top bags for some reason, I don’t know why. You can use the two included straps to hold large boxes; bungees are also an option.

  • The Travoy folds up into a tiny package, which can be dropped into the included bag. This is especially nice for those of us who live in cities where real estate prices exceed $1000 per square foot, but it’s not unwelcome
    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    in any scenario. Bike storage can be a hassle, especially cargo bike storage. We have two kids, a ridiculously large garage, and we do not own a car, so bike storage is a no problem for us personally. However if we had one kid and lived in a tiny walk-up apartment with no garage or storage, as we did when we first came to San Francisco, the Brompton + Pere seat + Travoy combination would be a category-killer, because together they take up less space than a folding metal hand cart. Actually, as regular readers know, I have regularly carried two kids on our Brompton; one on the Pere seat and one standing on the rear deck. You could easily stick the whole kit behind the front door. Alternatively, our old landlord let people keep trailers and strollers in the building lobby. The folding mechanism is very clever, however it is definitely a two-handed operation only suitable for the able-bodied. Our son (9 years), for example, does not yet have the hand strength to push the side buttons in simultaneously to collapse each portion of the trailer; those with limited hand strength might need to find another trailer or leave it in the open position permanently. The buttons on each axle that pop the wheels off, on the other hand, are extremely easy to operate.

  • At less than 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) unloaded, the Travoy is light enough to carry anywhere. What’s more the fact that it leans over while in use gives it an extremely small footprint, and it’s narrower than the handlebars on our bikes. This is not a trailer that you have to worry about threading through traffic pinch points or the (sadly necessary) bollards blocking the entrances of multi-use paths to cars.
  • There are multiple grab points on the trailer in both the open and closed positions, as I alluded earlier. Flip down the bike attachment point and the Travoy becomes a hand cart (bags attached) or hand truck (bags
    The hand truck mode, no bags

    The hand truck mode, no bags

    detached). Fold it down at the center point and fold up the bottom plate and it can be carried in one hand like a briefcase.

  • The Travoy can be operated with flat tires. It is pathetic that I can testify to this, but in my defense, I know I’m not the only Travoy owner who sometimes forgets to pump up the tires. More than once I have found myself griping about the Travoy’s poor handling, only to discover when I got home that both tires were completely flat. Ignoring routine maintenance on this trailer will affect the handling, but it will still work.
  • Attaching and detaching this trailer on to and off of the bike is simple and secure. All you have to do is place the hole over the pin and drop it in. It is held in place by a spring-loaded arm, and having taken this trailer off road, I can report that it will not shake loose even under rough conditions. To release it, pull back the spring arm and lift up the attachment point. Because of the geometry, it is easy to lift the trailer off the attachment point even when fully loaded, because the tires hold all the weight. Easy peasy.

What I don’t like about the Travoy

  • The Burley Travoy is more over-accessorized than Batman. This is confusing and annoying. It comes with one bag, which you can store the folded trailer in, and pretty understandably, most people think that that is all that there is. However there are additional shopping bags and travel bags and waterproof bags, and at least the shopping bags are far better designed for carrying stuff than the included trailer bag. They are so much better designed, in fact, that I think that they should be included with the trailer. I see no point to the travel bags; other user reviews have noted that Burley is not a luggage manufacturer and that parts like the shoulder straps are uncomfortable. It would be more useful to be able to buy clips that allow you to attach any bag you already own to the Travoy, yet to the best of my knowledge these don’t exist. I have no idea what purpose the waterproof bags serve; I have yet to meet anyone who has one. Similarly, the Travoy comes with a couple of tie-down straps, and you can buy more tie-down straps, and it comes with a seat post attachment, but you can buy a rear rack clamp if you have a child seat or whatever on the bike and can’t reach the seat post from behind, and so on, and even trying to write all this stuff down gives me decision fatigue despite the fact that I am a researcher by inclination, training, and profession.
  • The kickstand is wretched. A friend calls it “the penis stick,” which, yes, it does resemble, noting that “you can’t use it as a leg.” With extended use, some people’s kickstands break off. Ours has remained attached, but it
    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    is unreliable, and will sometimes collapse unexpectedly when we try to balance the Travoy on it. Is it a deal-killer? No, it’s not the end of the world if the trailer tips over. Is it as annoying as heck? It definitely is. The kickstand would be bombproof if it were welded into position and didn’t fold away, like on every other folding hand cart in the known universe. Having the kickstand extended permanently wouldn’t really affect how small the trailer folds away so it’s basically another case of unnecessary “features.”

  • The trailer bag that is included with the Travoy, when it is attached to the trailer to carry groceries or whatever, tends to scrape against the wheels. That is because, unlike the shopping and luggage bags, the trailer bag has no rigid internal structure. If you drop three bunches of carrots in the bag, they fall right to the bottom and once the trailer is tilted back to be pulled, they often shift and rest on the edges of the wheels. This is part of the reason that I failed to notice the tires had gone flat so many times; when the trailer bag is filled on the Travoy, I learned to expect poor handling because of the wheel scraping. If you notice it, you can sometimes rearrange the bag’s contents around a little bit and get them off the wheels for the remainder of your trip. Since we moved to using the shopping bags almost exclusively, this is no longer a problem. However this solution requires buying extra bags.
  • Although the folding mechanism is clever, each folding point can be sticky. This seems to be somewhat random; sometimes they pop right into action, and sometimes you have to poke around for a while.
  • The trailer attachment point sticks sometimes, particularly on the Brompton, which holds the Travoy at a slightly different angle than Burley seems to have intended. The same issue would arise for short riders on properly-fitted bikes and for children. To attach and detach the trailer from the Brompton, I sometimes have to lift the bike a couple of inches off the ground.
  • Technically the Travoy can only carry 60 pounds (27 kilos). Given that we’ve owned ours long enough that any warranty has long since expired, I’m comfortable sharing the fact that in our experience, it can carry much more. Nevertheless, do this at your own risk. Similarly, Burley doesn’t really support people carrying anything but its designated bags on the Travoy, which underestimates its true capabilities.
  • The Travoy, yee-argh, it’s kind of expensive. Maybe this would feel less painful if you were already planning on dropping a Benjamin on a folding hand cart, but still. The current list price is $300, although it goes on sale sometimes (we bought ours years ago and paid a lot less than that; seeing the current price was an unpleasant shock). What’s more the Travoy is almost as hard to find used as a Brompton child seat, because it’s both useful and easy to store, so no one has any reason to get rid of one once they have it. It’s definitely an investment kind of accessory. We have no regrets because after all the years we’ve owned it, the cost is fully amortized plus it’s got years of use left, but you know, our kids’ bikes cost less than that. Plus there are the endless potential accessory purchases as well. On the other hand, as always, it’s cheaper than a car.

So the Burley Travoy: we like it and we’d get it again, despite the fact that figuring out the accessories gave me a headache and despite the annoyance of having it tip over sometimes. The Travoy folds up like origami and can haul virtually everything we need. We are moving out of the years when going somewhere with our kids requires dragging along an obscene quantity of stuff, so our use has declined, but it we still take weekly trips to the farmers’ market and the library, and as a result, our Travoy more than earns its keep.

 

 

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Filed under Brompton, car-free, cargo, reviews

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is the new Bosch mid-drive, which is a pretty nice piece of equipment. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that makes me wonder a little about the manufacturer. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. The Bosch is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the Bosch could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, the Bosch assist kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know.

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

9 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

We tried it: Bike Friday Haul-a-Day

Nice color.

Nice color.

Last year in Portland, we had a chance to test-ride a new midtail: the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day. Midtails are not particularly common yet, even in the still-rarified world of cargo bikes, so the summary: they are shorter versions of longtails, which have the advantage that they can sometimes fit on bus bike racks, and the disadvantage that they can’t carry as much stuff. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day now seems be occupying an odd space between the two. Our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, was a midtail. I get asked the “can I carry two kids on a midtail?” question a lot. The answer is that they are great for hauling one kid all the time, and can work for hauling two kids occasionally, assuming those kids are close in age, not too big, and neither one needs a child seat. However in our fairly-extensive experience, if you try to use a midtail for a two-kid daily commute, there will be blood. You can also carry an adult on the deck of a midtail (honestly, this is often easier than carrying a kid because adults usually don’t lunge around on the deck). The Bike Friday has a longer deck, so it seems to be somewhere in the middle of these two options.

The six-word review:

Bike Friday Haul-a-Day: Fun, versatile, squirrely.

Bike Friday did a lot of things right that no other manufacturer of midtails has managed yet. And it’s also not exactly a midtail, as the bike has grown longer over time. However all Bike Fridays are fundamentally quirky in a way that will appeal to some people more than others. I am hardly the first person to write a review of this bike; check out Tiny Helmets’ perspective for the views of someone who has spent a lot more time on one.

What I like about the Haul-a-Day…

  • It rides like a bike. This is the key difference between a front loading box bike and a longtail: you have to learn to ride a front loader, and you can just get on an unloaded longtail and start riding. A midtail is like that but more so. There is really no learning curve, at least until you put squirming kids on the back. At that point everything changes no matter what bike you’re riding. In the meantime, being able to get on a bike and just ride it takes a lot of the intimidation factor out of moving to a cargo bike.
  • Finally, someone built a midtail with a low deck. Halle-freaking-lujah! Our Kona MinUte and the elusive Kinn Cascade Flyer have giant wheels and sky-high decks. I haven’t ridden the Flyer but can attest that the
    The deck height relative to an 8-year-old, which just fits two older kids in a good mood.

    The deck height relative to an 8-year-old, which just fits two older kids in a good mood.

    MinUte, with a heavy kid on the back, feels like it wants to tumble over during turns at speed thanks to the deck height, and it is very hard to keep the loaded bike upright while walking it. Yuba’s Boda Boda has smaller wheels, but decided to hike the rear deck up to nosebleed level anyway to fit a rear-rack BionX battery, so same problem. The Haul-a-Day has a 20” rear wheel and kept the deck low enough that even two squirming kids won’t make the bike tippy. The EdgeRunner’s comparably-low deck was a fantastic innovation and is what led us to finally buy a longtail. The Haul-a-Day is dramatically more stable because of this decision.

  • The carrying capacity is impressive. In my experience front loading box bike manufacturers often neglect setting up the back of the bike to carry cargo, and longtail manufacturers often neglect setting up the front of
    The frame-mounted front basket, very impressive.

    The frame-mounted front basket, very impressive.

    the bike to carry cargo. The Haul-a-Day that we rode, however, came with a deep, frame-mounted front basket, made with a mesh fine enough that the basket didn’t need a liner. We could toss both my bag and my daughter’s hair bands in there safely. The frame-mounting means that the basket can carry tons of weight, and Bike Friday made the interesting and smart decision to use a narrow and deep basket, which means the Haul-a-Day remains narrow enough that it could probably even fit into those annoying wave racks that retrograde businesses are still installing. In addition there are the usual rear sling bags on either side of the deck, plus the deck itself. With these options, you don’t have to worry that you can carry the kids but not the groceries.

  • The Haul-a-Day is relatively lightweight. With cargo bikes the term “lightweight” is always kind of a joke, right from the beginning, and it’s even more so when you consider that any family rider is going to pack on bags, kid seats or kid corrals, a front basket, front and rear lights, water bottles, at least one bell, not to mention another actual PERSON, no matter how little, and the gear always associated with little people. And yet. With midtails people often do have the ambition to carry it on a bus bike rack occasionally, so being able to lift it off the ground is a real issue. The bike we rode was not actually fully geared up as a family bike, but it had a lot of the relevant extras, and picking it up was still within the realm of possibility. The same, alas, cannot be said of our big cargo bikes (although in their defense, they can carry more stuff/kids).
  • The accessories are cargo accessories. The center stand can keep the bike upright when loaded, for example.
  • It fits riders of many sizes. This is a really neat innovation of the Bike Friday design; it not only has a low step-over, for those with shorter legs, it is collapsible, for those who are short all over. That means that it is possible to telescope the front of the bike so that people with shorter arms can easily reach the handlebars. The Wheelha.us crew had the immediate insight that this meant that a kid could ride this bike, and now their 8-year-old has his own Haul-a-Day (my son has no comparable ambition; he is a San Francisco kid and he wants an assisted bike). It can be hard for the truly short to find a bike they can handle; this bike is a notable exception.
  • Some midtails fit on some bus bike racks. The Haul-a-Day fits on Portland bus bike racks, for example, and there is photographic evidence that it also fits on the Amtrak racks. I know from experience that bus bike racks in both Portland and Seattle are longer than those of SF Muni, so caveat emptor: this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Haul-a-Day could fit on any bus bike rack. Maybe it could, maybe it couldn’t. Still, if you live in Portland, or take a lot of Amtrak rides, you’re in pretty good shape for multi-modal transportation with a Haul-a-Day.
  • The Haul-a-Day is customizable. Bike Friday is a family-owned hobbyist/local type of business, and that means that they are more-or-less making their bikes by hand. There are a number of standard options on the website with respect to gearing and accessories, and the experience of others suggests that there are a number of unconventional options available to those who ask. They seem like genuinely nice people who want you to have the bike that you desire.
  • Update (see comments below): The Haul-a-Day is now available with a BionX electric assist. Great option.
  • The price is not outrageous. In January 2015, a Haul-a-Day is running $1200-$1400 on the Bike Friday website, depending on specifications (some assembly required).

What I don’t like about the Haul-a-Day…

  • It rides like a folding bike. The Haul-a-Day is not actually a folding bike. However it has a design feature common to folding bikes, which is a single tube between the front and the rear of the bike. In contrast, a typical diamond frame has two tubes: one stretches from below the handlebars to just below the seat (this is the top tube), and the other runs underneath it from below the handlebars to the cranks and pedals (the down tube). Having that second tube makes the bike handle better, because it has more lateral stability. A folder usually feels somewhat twitchy, because the frame is moving around a bit at the same time that you are trying to steer. (Living in California, I perceive this effect as equivalent to riding in a very, very mild earthquake.) It’s not a deal-breaker or anything, but given the choice I prefer a different design. As others have pointed out, it can also making figuring out how to lock up the bike challenging, because the frame lacks an obvious hole to put the lock through. And this design choice is a clear tradeoff for other, desirable things: for the same reason that the bike is twitchy, it can easily be fitted to short people in a way that other bikes cannot be.
  • The handling felt somewhat squirrely. Bear with me here, because I’m about to get vaguely technical. Every decision in bike design comes with tradeoffs. Putting smaller wheels on a bike makes turning easier, but a tradeoff is that the ride is bumpier—I noticed the effect when we switched our EdgeRunner’s 26” front wheel for a 20” front wheel, and the Haul-a-Day, which comes with two 20” wheels standard, has the same issue. This exacerbates the twitchiness I mentioned above. The Haul-a-Day also has a shorter wheelbase than other cargo bikes. The advantage is that the bike is more agile, as Bike Friday correctly points out on their website. The disadvantage is that the Haul-a-Day seemed back-heavy, and while the low deck keeps it stable, I still felt like it was almost fishtailing at times. That said, if you carry lighter loads, or dead weight cargo instead of live kids, or if you ride where it’s flat, you will notice these things less than if you do what I do when test riding cargo bikes, which is to stick both my kids on board and find a hill. Update (see comments below): Note that I was riding a prototype, and the newer models have a longer wheelbase and as a result, have better handling. Those who have ridden the newer models say that although the bike is still a bit squirrely, it is much less obvious than in the older models. (The Haul-a-Day models are a bit of a moving target, as they seem to just happen unannounced.)
  • The Haul-a-Day model that I rode was sluggish on the hills we rode, which were not particularly massive. This may have been a function of its gearing; I was riding the 8-speed model. I am also used to the fine-tuned
    8 gears and very wide handlebars

    8 gears and very wide handlebars

    instant stopping power of hydraulic disc brakes, and found that I needed to be more cautious with the standard Haul-a-Day brakes.

  • Not everyone can ride this bike. While it’s stupendous for the small, the height limit for the rider is 6’4” and the weight limit for the rider is 220lbs/100kilos, which will exclude those at the taller and heavier end of humanity. Update (see below in comments): There is, however, an option for those who weigh up to 260 pounds. This is the kind of as-needed versatility that Bike Friday is known for.
  • The Haul-a-Day’s kid-hauling accessories appear to have been designed by someone who doesn’t have kids. And boy did I get an earful about that, as my kids at 8 and 5 years were old enough to make their opinions
    This is the deck and the corral that they disliked: bumpy and open in the back.

    This is the deck and the corral that they disliked: bumpy and open in the back.

    known. The deck, for reasons that mystify me, is made with a bumpy diamond pattern on metal, and my son (who is quite skinny) complained vociferously that it hurt to ride on it. My daughter wasn’t thrilled either. The kid corral, which Bike Friday calls the Whoopee-Deux (and here is the place where I can no longer avoid my standard complaint about the ridiculous naming conventions, random capitalization, and unconventional grammar endemic to cargo bike manufacturers), is open in the back. Which: what? If you put two kids on a cargo bike, one of your biggest and most legitimate fears is that they’ll get into a shoving match and one of them will go right off the back of the bike. Other manufacturers’ versions of this accessory are enclosed in the back, for good reason.

  • As with the EdgeRunner, the lovely low deck that makes it possible to load up on kids without feeling a hint of instability also means that older kids can drag their feet on the ground. If you make your kids test-ride enough bikes as cargo, they will start dragging their feet as a way to brake the bike just to mess with you. Under ordinary circumstances, they may do it out of boredom or distraction. Adding foot rests can help with this issue, but there are no guarantees.
  • As with all longtails and midtails, you need to give some thought to balancing the load. Front loading box bikes are easy; you throw whatever in the box and ride off. Bikes that put stuff on either side of the wheels often need some jiggering to keep from falling to one side.
  • As yet, no longtail or midtail manufacturer provides a weather cover for the kids carried on the back, Bike Friday included. Here in drought-stricken California, this is kind of a non-issue. In places with more interesting weather, it may be the difference between occasional and regular riding. And even though there isn’t much need for weather protection here, it is still much easier to get our kids out the door in the morning with the promise of being able to ride underneath the cover.
  • Bike Friday is a weird company. It’s not a bike manufacturer in the usual sense of the word; it does everything in-house and acts more like a hobbyist shop. That comes with some advantages in terms of customizing the bike as desired. And it comes with some disadvantages because things change on the bikes, sometimes without warning, so an accessory that fit a model made one year may not fit the same model that was made in a different year. If you live in Eugene, I imagine it’s not much of a problem, given that you can head over in person and get the right part. Here, people with Bike Fridays have testified that they need to have a lot more patience. Update: Although I (and many other people we know) were not aware of it before, there is a local dealer in San Francisco for Bike Friday, Warm Planet Bikes, formerly located at the Caltrain station and a lovely shop.
  • Getting local support may be tricky. Bike Friday does not seem really interested in working with local dealers, and in fact competes with bike shops by selling their bikes direct to consumers on their website. More recently, Bike Friday created a Kickstarter campaign that sold Haul-a-Days for less than the price that local shops could charge. As a result, there aren’t many local bike shops that carry Bike Fridays, because there is no way for them to make the numbers work. This became an issue locally when the Bike Friday Tikits were recalled due to fall hazards—San Francisco isn’t Eugene, so finding a local shop to repair what has always been a semi-custom bike, with parts that changed in different years, became a real issue for people who owned them (and who, as mentioned above, weren’t familiar with Warm Planet). In many localities, this kind of bike may be better suited to people who plan to work on their bikes themselves.
At this point, their patience had not yet been exhausted by the close quarters.

At this point, their patience had not yet been exhausted by the close quarters.

We are out of the midtail and longtail market ourselves until our kids are ready to ride completely on their own. Right now our kids ride their own bikes sometimes and have us tow both them and their bikes when they get tired. Matt is eager to get back on his MinUte when he is a solo commuter again, because midtails make it possible to have a bike that rides and parks normally, but can carry enormous piles of stuff, or a kid, when needed. If that describes your life right now, then the Bike Friday should be very appealing, especially if you’re short. (And if you are a child who wants a cargo bike, it’s almost your only option.) Midtails and probably the newer not-quite-longtail Haul-a-Day are very fun to ride, because they are so accessible. While the Haul-a-Day isn’t the right bike for our current needs, I’m delighted to see that a bike so versatile is now on the market.

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under family biking, reviews, Portland

Christmas tree by bicycle 2014

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we've got.

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we’ve got.

There was a time when we didn’t get a tree every year (because technically we’re a Jewish family, albeit a California-Jewish family affiliated with the Japanese-American community, so we celebrate holidays of the world on like a daily basis). However now that we go everywhere by bike, it’s an annual thing. And we’re getting better at it. This was the fourth year we went tree-shopping by bike, and every year the trees get taller, the loading time gets shorter, and the trip gets less precarious.

It's easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it's even easier to park bikes.

It’s easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it’s even easier to park bikes.

In the first year we picked up our tree by Kona MinUte, and in the second year we hauled the tree by Bullitt. We also forgot to take the cover off before leaving that year, and lost a critical part, so in year three we went back to the MinUte. And then this year we hauled by Bullitt again, remembering this time to take the cover off in advance. We’ve also moved since last year, so instead of going downhill then uphill again, it was all uphill on the way to the lot, and all downhill on the way back.

We don't normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

We don’t normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

Our bugaboo has always been that we have the lot nail on a stand for the tree, which makes the tree wide as well as tall. This year we were enough of a caravan that we were already all over the lane. So we dumped the tree sideways on top of the Bullitt’s bucket, snapped a couple of bungees to the side pins to hold it in place, and rode on home. No problem.

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The big change this year is that instead of me carrying both kids home by Brompton (still totally possible) they wanted to ride their own bikes. Our son made it all the way to the lot. Our daughter made it about two blocks uphill before she lost the ability to climb any further on her little single-speed bike. We had expected this, so I had ridden the EdgeRunner. It only took a minute to pop her bike on the back and tow it once she gave up. Having both a boxbike and a longtail is awesome. It’s like having two minivans, with magical park-anywhere-and-avoid-all-traffic powers.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

We don’t have to carry stuff by bicycle, of course. We have a car share membership, which my daughter announced to everyone in her kindergarten class during a field trip that passed by our house. So our decision to haul the tree by bike is a choice—we could drive if we wanted to, but where’s the fun in that? Nonetheless, when we got to the lot we spotted some friends from kindergarten there, and they were very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get the tree home. “Please, let us carry it home for you on our minivan,” they begged us.  I couldn’t be more grateful that we have the kind of school community where people volunteer to help. Still, this was our fourth year in a row of carrying trees on bicycles. We’ve totally got this.

There are people who’ve been hauling trees by bicycle longer, but it’s not a competition. Until next year, happy holidays!

 

5 Comments

Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco

Family bike shops that I like

I get asked questions about family biking a lot (Always welcome! Feel free to email! I will be painfully slow to respond, but it will happen eventually). One of the more common questions I get from people is where I think they should shop for bikes. This can be an awkward question to answer. There are thousands of bike shops and only one me. Admittedly there are far fewer family-oriented bike shops, but still. I live in San Francisco and mostly travel north from there, because that’s where my family lives. There’s no way that I could ever be truly objective, let alone offer advice to people in say, Minnesota.

That said, at least I have no conflicts of interest. I am a professor of public health and health policy at a university medical center with an extremely strict policy about any kind of giveaway that could be even vaguely construed as professionally-related. Although my primary work is in tobacco control, active transportation could easily be viewed as related to public health, because, well, it is in fact related to public health. Under the terms of my contract, I can’t be compensated for anything I say on this blog or accept any discounts or freebies (loaners are okay, but I have to give them back). So if nothing else it’s safe to say that my wildly subjective opinions are based solely on my wildly subjective experiences.

So anyway, below is a list of family-focused bike shops that I’ve liked and would visit again. It is a short list. First, as mentioned, I haven’t really visited THAT many bike shops, plus I only included shops that would actually call themselves family bike shops (which excludes our local bike shop). Second, I only listed places where we’ve made two or more purchases. My apologies to all the other family bike shops—I’m sure you’re great, but I have no way to know. Third, to the extent that you can trust anonymous reviews, they all get great reviews.

Shops are listed in order of their distance from my house. I admit that this is a totally useless organizing principle to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Ocean Cyclery (1935 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Enablers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Not that I saw
  • Kids’ play area: No, but noodling around on kids’ bikes is encouraged
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Yuba (Mundo, Boda Boda)
  • Assisted bikes: Yes, BionX both for the Yubas and as an after-market addition
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, and a buyback program to help afford bigger bikes as kids grow!
  • Child seats: Yes, and a lot of expertise with them
  • What we bought there: My old Breezer, Bobike Maxi, Bobike Junior, accessories, service
  • Other: Ocean Avenue is a nice commercial strip with places to retreat when the kids get antsy, like the burrito shop next door. Transit access is excellent (it’s on the K line) and the former hippodrome around the corner is an outstanding place for test rides, especially for kids.

Ocean Cyclery is the first real family bike shop I ever visited, and they made it very easy to start biking for transportation. It is the shop where I often send people who ask me about different kinds of child seats, who want to buy bikes for their kids, and who tell me that they’re not sure they’re up for this “riding for transportation” thing that we’ve got going on but still want a bike, something inexpensive so they can ride with the kids on their new bikes in the park on weekends. Ocean has the widest selection I’ve seen in San Francisco of what I consider traditional family biking goods: child seats, trailers, and kids’ bikes. One Christmas they had a bike in the front window with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the rear ready for test-rides, the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing in a bike shop. They offer a buyback program for kids’ bikes to make it easy to upgrade as your kids grow, and also have a great selection of bags and accessories. On the cargo bike side, they carry Yubas (assisted and unassisted). The owners, Jeff and Sabina, support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and they are incredibly nice. As a bonus, Ocean has possibly the best location for test riding bicycles in all of San Francisco: it is a block away from the city’s former hippodrome, which is now a sleepy flat oval road surrounded by homes. Even little kids can safely try out bikes there. If you’re interested in family biking but not sure where to start, Ocean Cyclery is your bike shop.

 

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

The New Wheel (420 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Curators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: No, but older kids will adore the tools and parts hung on every square inch of the bathroom walls; our son had to be forcibly extricated
  • Kids’ play area: No; however younger kids can play with kids’ bikes and older kids will gravitate to the shop’s iPad
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Xtracycle EdgeRunner
  • Assisted bikes: All their bikes are assisted, and they will put after-market BionX assists on other bikes
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, plus, unusually, a good selection of helmets for infants
  • Child seats: Yes, the Yepp rear seat
  • What we bought there: Our son’s Torker Interurban (20”), Xtracycle EdgeRunner, our daughter’s helmet, BionX upgrades, accessories, regular service visits
  • Other: Cortland Avenue is a quiet and increasingly upscale commercial strip so there are restaurants and shops, plus the Bernal Heights library about a block away if the kids lose patience. Getting there is a serious haul by bike but the 24 Muni line will drop you right in front of the shop.
The New Wheel is out at Sunday Streets offering test rides, FYI.

The New Wheel comes out to Sunday Streets to offer test rides of assisted bikes, FYI.

The New Wheel is a focused bike shop. They carry only electric-assist bikes (okay, and unassisted kids’ bikes—it’s illegal for kids to ride assisted bikes in California). They’re actually even more focused than that: they carry extremely reliable assisted bikes that anyone can ride. The whole electric assist market is still pretty nascent, and has only recently become more than a private enclave for the do-it-yourself set. For someone new to the idea of riding a bike, let alone riding an assisted bike, the obsessive hobbyist end of the market can feel completely overwhelming, to put it politely. It felt that way to me. The New Wheel is not set up like a traditional bike shop, with mystifying parts and accessories piled up on every surface. Instead they have bikes in front to test ride, and some reasonably identifiable accessories mixed in with actual art. It is a very non-threatening place for a new rider to visit. If you want an electric-assist bike, you should go to The New Wheel. Their expertise with assist systems is in a class of its own. Plus, they always have the most recent BionX software upgrades and know how to tweak the system to maximize the torque for hill-climbing. They also reset our BionX so that it kicked in at 0.5kph instead of 2mph, which has been a total game-changer for us. Many of their commuter bikes have mid-drive assists, some of which could probably scale anything short of a vertical wall. Also, they have the prettiest assisted bikes, with none of the hulking beasts that anchor (literally) the less expensive and less reliable end of the market. In keeping with the curated feel, they offer one family/cargo bike: the EdgeRunner (assisted, obviously), as well as one kids’ bike in each size. Everything in their shop promises years of trouble-free riding. Brett and Karen, the owners, are kind people who have immense patience with my wild ideas, and they are also big supporters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Their service is top-notch, way beyond expectations (you can bring your unassisted bike here for service too). Because The New Wheel is an all-assisted bike shop, it is located in Bernal Heights, among the steepest hills in the city, including Bradford Street, with its 41% grade. That’s kind of inconvenient for me personally, but hey, why not?

 

There are so many bikes it's tough to get a good shot.

There are so many bikes it’s tough to get a good shot.

Blue Heron Bikes (1306 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California)

“The Aggregators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh, we didn’t visit the bathroom. Sorry.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a Lego table in the back corner, plus an extensive collection of kids’ bikes that they’re encouraged to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No, although you can sometimes use the deck of a Bullitt for this
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Surly, Xtracycle, Yuba, and more
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair
  • What we bought there: Brompton accessories
  • Other: Gilman Street is a small commercial strip with some options for food and entertainment. The shop is right on the Ohlone Trail and easily accessible from North Berkeley BART.
The Lego table

The Lego table

A question I get a lot: “I want to try a lot of different kinds of cargo bikes. Is it worth traveling to Blue Heron in Berkeley?” My answer: Yes. Yes it is. They have all the bikes. They have cargo bikes I’d never seen or heard of before, and after the years I’ve spent obsessing about cargo bikes this is a rare experience for me. So if you want to compare riding a Bullitt with a Brompton with an Xtracycle with a Yuba with an odd-looking longtail that just came off a container ship from Japan, all in both assisted and unassisted versions, well, now you know where to go. It’s pretty obvious that Berkeley real estate is less expensive than San Francisco real estate, because they also have piles of commuter bikes and dozens of different kids’ bikes. As a result, Blue Heron Bikes is the Bay Area’s one-stop family bike shop. Even better, it is located along the Ohlone Trail, a shared bicycle-pedestrian path that runs past the North Berkeley BART station, and it has a large flat paved area in the back, which allows safe test rides for all ages. The owner, Rob, is passionate about family biking and patient with families who come in and are understandably a little overwhelmed with all the options they find. I’ve now met more than one family who bought a Bullitt there and made an adventure out of getting it back to San Francisco by ferry or BART, carving out an ad hoc Silk Road for family bicycles. Nonetheless, I feel resentful that Blue Heron is located in Berkeley and not in San Francisco.

 

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Clever Cycles (900 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon)

“The Experts”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes, and diapers too. Like Ikea! But cooler.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a large corner with a couch, toys, and books, plus kids’ bikes out the wazoo to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes
  • Cargo bikes: Babboe, Bakfiets, Brompton, Metrofiets, Nihola, Surly, Workcycles, Xtracycle, Yuba, plus we spotted dark horses like the Kidztandem and Onderwater—seriously, it’s unreal
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and they developed and sell the Stokemonkey assist.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, yes, yes
  • What we bought there: rental bikes, accessories
  • Other: Hawthorne Boulevard is a commercial strip featuring distressingly fast car traffic with some options for food and entertainment (basically a nearby bar as I remember it). Head back onto the nearby quiet and leafy streets of Ladd’s Addition for test rides instead.
Why not a hot tub?

Why not a hot tub?

Clever Cycles is the drag queen of family bike shops: it’s faaaaaaabulous! Honestly it’s difficult to describe, let alone oversell, Clever Cycles’ raw, unadulterated family biking appeal. I say this even though the first time I walked in, the bike at the front door had a huge growler full of beer attached to it. Honestly this seemed a little off to me for a family bike shop, but that is only because I do not live in Portland. Portland is so beer-crazy that I assume local hospitals give it away to new parents in lieu of formula. Clever Cycles is a venerable institution in the world of family biking, as its owners were importing, designing, and selling family bicycles and electric assists before we even had children. There was clearly unmet demand back then, because the shop has expanded through its various incarnations to the point that it’s now gigantic, at least to my eyes. It does not look like any other bike shop. It looks more like a bike museum (admittedly I have only visited one bike museum, in Davis, California). In the front showroom the box bikes look almost petite, and the kids’ bikes are parked in long rows on oriental rugs. There is so much space that the mechanical parts of the shop are tucked away in back, with rows of even more bikes. Their accessories are so extensive that I would embarrass myself with the omissions if I tried to give details. However they were the first U.S. shop to discover and carry the Brompton child seat, back when the idea of carrying a kid on a Brompton sounded roughly as plausible as throwing a kid all the way to the moon. In the realm of family biking I suspect they have accumulated more firsts than even they can remember. Clever Cycles has the largest selection of rental bikes that I have ever seen, including Bromptons and family trikes. The shop also rents out portable hot tubs that it delivers to customers by bike, because this is Portland. I mean, obviously. Unusually, Clever Cycles sells some clothing too. My only frustration with Clever Cycles is that it is so well-suited to its locale (as it should be) that it is rather less well-suited to mine. Nonetheless, at least one owner is a former resident of San Francisco, and so even if their stock doesn’t reflect our issues—it’s hard to imagine a shop making a go of selling unassisted bakfietsen in San Francisco, although one shop tried and moved to Sausalito—they have the expertise to speak intelligently about them. Even some of the offhand comments they made back in 2012, when we first bought our Bullitt, turned out to be more prescient than I had hoped (they were skeptical about adding the Patterson). At some point I realized that I was not totally ignorant about family bikes anymore, but I know enough to know my limits. The people running Clever Cycles are experts.

 

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Splendid Cycles (407 SE Ivon Street, Portland, Oregon)

“The Visionaries”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh… once again we neglected to check the bathroom.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a corner with a bench and a basket of books and toys
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, plus the deck-of-a-Bullitt option
  • Cargo bikes: Bullitt, Butchers & Bicycles, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: No
  • Child seats: Yes, various options for the Bullitt and Yepp seats for the Xtracycle
  • What we bought there: our Bullitt, rental bikes, Bullitt parts and accessories
  • Other: Splendid Cycles is located on a weird little corner underneath the freeway and near some industrial/construction companies, which I offer as a warning because when we first got there, we thought we were in the wrong place. The shop is also directly adjacent to a lovely bike path that runs along the river. Portland, I sometimes find you kind of schizo. Who zones this way?
The kid zone

The kid zone

I first visited Splendid Cycles after we realized that we might actually be able to stop using our car in San Francisco if we had the right bike. The BionXed Big Dummy that they had available for test rides was the first assisted bike that I ever rode, and after hauling my extremely patient friend Todd on its deck up the hills around the shop I couldn’t stop grinning and thinking, “This could totally work!” Joel and Barb, the owners of Splendid, imagined a world full of crackpots like me and decided they could help make it happen. And so they did something that I would never have the courage to do: they opened a shop that sold only cargo bikes. And holy smokes, they were right: there really were a lot of crackpots like me out there. Splendid is best known for selling Bullitts (and in fact it serves as the source for all the Bullitts sold in the family bike shops we visit, as it imports them). But there are lots of good reasons to ride longtails as well, and Splendid had child seats on Big Dummies long before the EdgeRunner made its debut in less forward-thinking shops. They rent bikes as well, which is very helpful when learning to maneuver cargo bikes—in some cases (mine) there is a learning curve. I’m still awed by the sheer bravado involved in opening up a bike shop that doesn’t carry any “normal” bikes, but you’d never guess it was anything out of the ordinary from talking to Joel and Barb, who are down to earth and incredibly helpful and also know way more about cargo bikes than, like, everybody. When they started their shop cargo bikes were pretty much a boutique niche and everything was somewhat customized. The rain cover for the Bullitt was their development, and getting it made riding with our kids in all weather conditions completely unremarkable. Both the covers and the larger wooden boxes that hold more kids are accessories they developed with local Portland businesses. When we bought our Bullitt we had the option of getting a larger wooden box but declined in favor of the standard box both because we couldn’t get a rain cover for the wooden box and because we wanted a narrower bike. Not long after that, they’d developed rain covers for the larger wooden boxes and now they have 3-child Bullitt boxes and rain covers for those too. They are already selling Bullitts with the super-powered BionX D on them, which is not an option yet here in San Francisco, no matter how often I call. (One of the problems of being an early adopter is that now I’m always envious of the latest innovations.) They never stop coming up with new cool things, many of which are so popular that they stop being innovations. Then they put the only-slightly-less-cool older bikes on the incredible sale page of their website. Honestly, I didn’t really catch on to how impressive it all was at first because Joel and Barb are so mellow. They put their bike shop on an industrial corner and concentrate on the bikes rather than the bling. Splendid has all the right things without any unnecessary extras, and they are always coming up with more awesome ideas that make family biking (and the somewhat-less-interesting-to-me cargo biking) easier and more fun. Whenever there is discussion about adding bike lanes in San Francisco, there is always blowback from some people about how it’s only for hipsters, and that you can’t shop for groceries or carry kids on a bike. These people are wrong. Splendid Cycles is building a world where people can carry anything and everything on bikes.

 

The G&O logo is a family bike.

The G&O logo is a family bike.

G&O Family Cyclery (8417 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle, Washington)

“The Tinkerers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a train table right in front, plus some balance bikes that kids can ride
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, stools by the counter (and the deck of a Bullitt), not to mention a La Leche League sticker in the front window
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Metrofiets, Soma Tradesman, Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX, Bafang, or Stokemonkey kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Cleary bikes (all sizes), Soma BART
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair (in stock!)
  • What we bought there: Brompton parts and service, Xtracycle EdgeRunner accessories (frame-mounted front rack, Rolling Jackass center stand)
  • Other: Greenwood Avenue has great options for food and entertainment when the kids start to lose it, including the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company (formerly the Seattle outpost of 826 Valencia)
The train table

The train table

G&O stands for Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil, and while their shop is less than two years old, I knew Davey well before then, when he had his own blog, Riding on Roadways (now folded into the shop blog). I love G&O because it has and does all the things that people learn they want once they start riding around with kids. It’s a bike shop that grew out of family biking. Almost all the bike shops we visited when we first started riding talked about family biking as something extra, “oh yeah, we’ll do that when we have time, later.” In most cases, of course, later meant never, but even shops that pick up family biking sometimes do it half-heartedly. But not here! This is a shop that had a changing table in the bathroom and a La Leche League sticker on the front door the day that they opened, and that puts the kids’ play table right out in front with the bikes. You can tell when you walk in the door that no one is going to freak out about your trying out a Yepp seat by actually putting a kid in it, something that happened to us (twice, in fact). G&O has launch parties when customers come to pick up their new bikes. They make a point of keeping accessories in stock that don’t necessarily make money, like the Brompton child seat, because “why should you have to wait for us to order it?” You want obscure kid-hauling stuff, like a helmet sized for a toddler? They’ve got your back. Despite the huge increase in family biking lately, things like toddler helmets are in fact considered obscure, and cargo bikes don’t necessarily have all the things families want yet. I think of Davey and Tyler as tinkerers because I know that there is nothing you can dream up that they won’t try to make work, as long as it’s safe. When I visited their shop last year, they were installing a Yepp mini front seat on a giant mountain bike with a telescopic fork, and the whole rig was covered in mud. It was the weirdest combination I’d seen in a while, and I stopped dead and said, “Really?” And Tyler smiled and said, “It’s what they want.” That visit to G&O is also where I found the frame-mounted front rack that now graces my EdgeRunner (maybe grace is the wrong word there, I concede that it’s not pretty), when I test rode Davey’s own personal EdgeRunner, which has the same rack. G&O also tested the first true pedal-assist Stokemonkeys, and have put more kinds of assist systems on a Bullitt than I knew existed. And of course they’ll take care of non-family bikes too. Servicing family bikers is like building for accessibility—what’s good for people in wheelchairs is good for everybody, and what’s good for families on bikes is good for all riders. Seattle is lucky to have G&O.

 

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking, kids' bikes, Portland, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Christmas tree by bike, again

Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.

Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.

We need happi coats if we're going to join the mochi pounding crew.

We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.

On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.

P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped).  But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.

The tree at home and decorated

The tree at home and decorated

Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).

Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, Kona, San Francisco, zero waste

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco